Red Buttons

DSC_0042It was a crackling cold day outside, and inside the partitioned hangar of the junk store, I felt woozy from fatigue, caffeine and the space-port feeling (“Loading buses for Planet Q”)  shed by ranks and ranks of blueish neon tube lighting high up in the metal rafters. My serious work–finding a few hand-me-down letter trays and storage racks for my 10th grade English classroom–was done. Then I noticed a jar and several tiny drawers full of old buttons on a metal shelf.  Nothing I needed for school, certainly, and I had been doing a little better giving away junk rather than collecting it. . . but, buttons that have lasted through the wear and tear, washing, and finally, separation from the clothes they held on long-grown or long-gone bodies deserve a look.  Besides, even if one were to acquire a few, they wouldn’t take up so much room. I decided that as far away from home as I was, a few minutes of indulgence would not cause a complete collapse of the known universe. 

I began to notice in the brown- and white-flecked jumble of the jar a number of jostling reds calling out, their gloss slightly, poignantly, dulled by decades-old grime. Most vintage things in stores are pretty picked over these days, so someone like me with no spare time usually does not stumble upon lucky finds.  Some of the wee denizens in this partly sorted (someone had begun and also given up) stash were clearly more than fifty years old.  I would allow myself to touch.  I set my bags down and told the cashier lady that I was going to take a bit of time now–she could hold my other stuff if she needed to.

I got stuck–I mean time stood still and my afternoon fatigue was either suspended or it actually helped me to forget about the rest of the afternoon’s obligations.  I began picking the tiny things out one at a time, and setting aside the less interesting “modern” shirt buttons, predictable pink pearly swirl sweater buttons etc. I woozily swerved into an uncharacteristically simple decision to collect the old red ones.  I could almost hear my mother’s voice telling me that red was always the most cheerful color, a fact inescapable in this warehouse chock-full of somewhat worn and shabby things.  I was middle-aged now, so my youthful scorn of a color so basic and popular as red was finally gone.  Red was now the joy in the midst of practical drabs, of hard-bitten workaday blacks.  I no longer saw red as gaudy and suspect, i.e. the color of self-advertisement, as I had in my cynical decades.  So my fists were filling up with little red plastic raspberries, jewels, and swirls, when the cashier lady decided something too, and offered me a plastic baggie for me to collect my treasures in.  I kept picking out red ones until I had picked through all the buttons the store had–the deep red of un-self-conscious yesteryear, with a few green ones thrown in–yes, we were coming up on Christmas and I was giving in to all kinds of traditional compulsions I usually resist. The  snub rounded shapes tended to fly out of my winter-chapped fingers, and so I started making tiny piles of the buttons I was “still thinking about” on the edge of the metal shelf that was the small stage for my small drama of impulse. I could swear I recognized some of the cake-like shapes from coats and pants my brother and I had worn as children, rather long ago.  I could remember the roughness of plaid wool, of thick corduroy–the lower tech fabrics that we still wore in the colder months in the 1960’s, mingled with exciting new nylon jackets with zippers.  I could remember being an actual child (before my young-Turk cynicism came to roost on the family’s shoulder like a brooding vulture) and cherishing those few bright red things we owned–skirts, book satchels, sweaters–as life rafts of sartorial confidence, brazen boldness!  Red buttons and red piping could exalt a plain white blouse or dress into a beloved favorite. My then-little brother considered red his special property too–no one would get a red car or a red pencil away from him.  (Even as an adult, hasn’t he had some red cars??)

Then I poked around in the little drawers on the thrift shop shelf–meant for nails and screws, or alternately, cufflinks?–where the unknown organizer had indulged in some mysterious classifying and picked out some of the larger and distinguished blue or brown buttons.  I believed some of them would cost as much as a quarter, so I tried to be thrifty!  I muttered something to the cash lady about the “creative clothing”  I made when I can steal a couple of hours. I use the phrase to prepare people for the colors and fabrics I combine.  With kind incredulity, she declared “You’ll have to show me one of those things next time!”

It’s nice to think that the possibility of cutting and sewing exists at all, after four pounds of English papers are graded, after the water for the chickpeas is measured and corrected, after homework completing, vitamin gulping and boot-wiping are supervised, and after the cat who just won’t listen has been cleaned up after; but even then, I’d probably just gaze at my bagful of old buttons for a while, reliving the sensations and associations that each one evokes, and not just jump into a new sewing project.  But look at the photo, such as it is:  can’t you see the ebullience amid the practical simplicity that red buttons still suggest?


Fantasy Road Food

My blogging name is Waterchili because I am a Bengali (much buffeted by American and other cultures since childhood) living in a cold North Atlantic state.  Yes, I know chili peppers don’t grow underwater.  Maybe I was thinking about the frozen green chilis I use in my cooking, and the contradictory richness that life in Northern New England brings to me.  It’s not really that I am a frozen Bengali gazing at life through a wall of ice, though you’re welcome to contemplate that fetching image; rather, I have green chilis from my mother’s southern garden in my freezer and they do gaze out at the world through a (thin) wall of ice.

I go on a long commute daily, using country and urban-village roads and glove compartment baby carrots and swuft water-bottle notwithstanding, I often find myself hankering desperately for something to eat or drink. Given my doctor’s counter-dysglycemic guidelines and my own earthy preferences, none of my legitimate wishes can be fulfilled in my actual roadside landscape, so I decided to fantasize about an ideal journey, studded with impossible snacks. (The one time I stopped for an actual apple dumpling, an elderly man in loose pants got out of his talking pickup truck–imagine a robotic female voice warning from the dash, “Proximity to body of water, proximity to body of water,” and the driver proudly claiming “she” even warned him of fire hydrants, other vehicles and such–to stop me.   When the old man caught sight of me eating in the parking lot under the pleasant autumn sun, trying to catch the crumbs before they hit the ground, he declared helpfully, “Them things aren’t good for you.”  Third chomp into my whole [as in hog]-baked-apple-and flaky-pastry perversion, standing two narrow asphalt lanes across from the orchard itself still full of fat and dark red apples on the hoof, I mean branch, I readily answered, “I won’t do it again, I promise.”)

What I really want is someone who sells raw sprouted chick peas with a squeeze of lime juice, served in a recyclable paper cone, at that bend in the road.  On wet afternoons, I’d love to stop for a bowl of hot sambar with soft cubes of vegetables floating in it—the dosa or idli one would expect with this would be off limits.  I’d cheerfully aver “I’m all set” before the server could hand me anything starchy.  What about a stall for gingery spiced milk, to assuage the parched throat of an easily taxed driver?  And is it only I who think opportunities for roasted peanut vendors are going begging at the street corner that intervenes between the high school and the fire station?  And does no one else want little fried fish with hot sauce?  The variety store (in Maine this seems to mean a convenience store that also sells sandwiches and pizza) could serve batter-fried okra, but doesn’t.  At least the lady was nice about breaking my $20 when I bought my kid a bag of chips.